Sep 3, 2004 1:07pm
Post-War Years: 1945-1968
WHILE IT WAS THE Communist Party USA that suffered the most from the McCarthy period, all the left was seriously impaired, and by the mid-fifties little remained of organized radical politics. The Socialist Party was down to about 2,000 members, and had more or less withdrawn from electoral action in the face of the increasingly restrictive ballot-access laws passed by state legislatures around the country. In 1956, the Socialist Party and the Social Democratic Federation reunited, under pressure from the Socialist International (to which both groups were affiliated). A right-wing group in the SDF opposed the merger, and established the Democratic Socialist Federation.
As of 1957, the SP-SDF was pervaded by a strong sense that the time had arrived to start over and rebuild a major radical party in America. Internally it was the same kind of party it had always been -- ecumenical and democratic -- and it still commanded a significant reservoir of public sympathy. Many in the Party felt that now, with the McCarthy era over and gone, it would be possible to recruit members to a revitalized revolutionary democratic Socialist Party. By this time, the Communist Party had lost a number of members over its uncritical allegiance to the Soviet government, and these comrades were among those the Party actively attempted to recruit. In addition, unity discussions were launched with two groups believed to be friendly: the Jewish Labor Bund and the Independent Socialist League.
The Bund is an international organization of anti-Zionist, non-religious, democratic socialist Jews. The ISL was a Trotskyist splinter group founded and led by Max Shachtman, with about 400 members.
In 1958 the ISL dissolved, and its members joined the SP-SDF. This ended any hope of further mergers, since Shachtman's intention was to take control of the Socialist Party. Almost at once, a faction fight erupted over the concept of "Realignment." Shachtman and his lieutenant, Michael Harrington, argued that what America needed wasn't a third party, but a meaningful second party. The Realignment supporters said that in sixty years the Socialist Party had failed to bring labor into the Party, and in fact kept losing their labor sympathizers (such as the Reuther brothers) because they saw they could do more within the Democratic Party. It was also argued that, in view of restricted ballot access, the Democratic primaries were a better forum for electoral activity than Socialist candidacies. But the basic argument was an appeal to traditional Marxism: Labor is the motor for social change, labor will not come to the Socialist Party, therefore the Socialist Party must go to labor -- which means going into the Democratic Party.
Many of those who later would form the Debs Caucus initially bought this reasoning, but they understood it to mean that, when becoming active in the Democratic Party, one should do so openly as a Socialist. The suppression of Socialist identity was no part of the thinking of the bulk of the membership. From its inception, the Socialist Party had opposed anything that smacked of manipulative politics, seeing it as directly contradictory to the goal of raising the consciousness and self-confidence of the working class.
There is no doubt that the realignment strategy was successful within its own terms.
Former SP labor people like A. Philip Randolph rejoined the Party, and many new people of this type were recruited during this period. But to many Socialists, Realignment in practice turned out to be something they could not stomach. The realignment strategy focused on getting hold of power, and Socialist politics is concerned not only with winning power within the status quo but also with redistributing it to build a new society. Furthermore, the result of the strategy was often to tone down everything that distinguished Socialists from liberals, and "where labor is" turned out to be not at the left of the Democratic Party but at the center, in alliance with the big city machines.
There were several other significant developments in the early 1960s. First, the merger with the Jewish Labor Bund failed to take place, partly because of the growing conservatism of the SP, and partly over the issue of Israel. The Bund wanted veto rights over SP policy on Israel, particularly in view of the unqualified support given by that nation by the Shachtmanites, and the SP tradition was against granting any such right.
Second, and perhaps crucial, was the defection of most of the youth section. The Young People's Socialist League had always been to the left of the Party as a whole; after the ISL merger, which also brought in the ISL's youth section, the YSL, the same conflicts developed in YPSL as in the Party. In the early 1960s, a group of left YPSLs obtained control of the Students for a Democratic Society, the youth section of the League for Industrial Democracy, and then disaffiliated it from the LID. At the 1963 YPSL Convention, the left held an overwhelming majority. They held views that were intolerable to the SP leadership, in particular the perspective that the CP had broken up into competing sects and was no longer a monolithic enemy, and that Leninist groups could be worked with. That convention formally dissolved the YPSL. SDS, now deprived of contact with sympathetic older comrades in the SP, made a series of errors and later disintegrated.
Third, the ISL merger brought in a number of members who did not agree with the original Shachtmanite-Harrington Realignment theology, who found allies among the old SP membership. Starting in Berkeley, under the leadership of Hal Draper, a number of "Independent Socialist Clubs" came into existence, in many places replacing the Socialist Party locals. For several years, the ISC leadership included SP members, but as time passed more and more of them left the SP.
Fourth, there was constant attrition as left Socialists found they could not tolerate the rightward drift of the SP leadership. This accelerated when the first Vietnam war protests failed to receive any official SP support, even though many members, including Norman Thomas, participated in them.